Despite various lacunae, UGTT remained democratic throughout. All its bodies were elected freely, even as dictatorship continued to be consolidated over the country as a whole. A combination of symbolic capital of resistance accumulated over decades, a record of results for its members, and a well-oiled machine at the level of organisation across the country and every sector of the economy, made UGTT unassailable and unavoidable at the same time.
But it also became the force to beat for anyone intent on gaining wider control in Tunisia; the UGTT became central as Tunisia moved from the period of revolutionary harmony in which the UGTT played host and facilitator, to a political and even ideological phase characterised by a plurality of parties and polarisation of public opinion.
The UGTT was challenged to keep its engagement in politics without falling under the control of a particular party or indeed turning into one. But, due to historical reasons, and partly because of the nature of trade unionism in a country such as Tunisia, the UGTT remained on the left side of politics and, in the face of rising Islamist power, became a place where the left, despite its many newly-formed parties, kept its ties and even strengthened them.
It is no secret that the top leadership of the UGTT is largely leftist, or at least progressive in the wide sense of the term. For these reasons, the UGTT remained strong and decidedly outside the control of Islamists. This was not for lack of trying, through courtship initially, appeasement afterwards, and finally coercion.
Attacked but not beleaguered
On December 4, 2012, as the union was gearing up to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the assassination of its founder, its iconic headquarters, Place Mohamed Ali, was attacked by groups known as Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. The incident was ugly, public and had an immediate impact. These leagues, which originated in community organisations in cities across the country, were designed to keep order and security immediately after Ben Ali's fall on January 14, 2011, but were later disbanded, and are now dominated by Islamists of various orientations.
They have been targeting the media, artists and members of the former regime under slogans such as purification or "cleansing of the old regime" and "protection of the revolution". One prominent action was their violent attack against the party Nida Tounes, headed by former Prime Minister Beji Caid el Sebsi, which resulted in the first political killing after the revolution, that of Nida member Lotfi Nagadh in the southern town of Tataouine.